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Are there any answers to Springfield’s homeless problem? CPO, city council looking at possibilities

Published: Sep. 7, 2021 at 7:27 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - It’s an age-old problem that’s been around for years and something most people who travel around Springfield take notice of quite often.

The homeless population.

“I’ve seen more homeless in the last 18 months than I’ve ever seen in the past 16 years that I’ve lived in Springfield,” remarked Springfield City Councilwoman Heather Hardinger at a recent council meeting where a local home owner, Stephen Sexton, brought up his concerns about homeless people taking up residence in abandoned houses or unoccupied properties.

“This homeless squatter situation is decimating our neighborhoods,” Sexton told the council, pointing out that the majority of shelters were only open during the day. “We help people 8-to-5. When five o’clock comes those people they’re doing services for go into the neighborhoods. And those neighbors are not happy with what’s happening.”

Sexton also pointed out the situation was hurting businesses, pointing out a grocery store “that lost thousands of dollars” because of losing customers and police “in the parking lot many times to break up fights and other issues with homeless people.”

“If we want to be known as the homeless center for this country, so be it,” he continued. “But you’re going to lose hundreds of good property owners who don’t want to spend the last years of their lives fighting situations like this.”

Several of the council members spoke after Sexton’s comments.

“I don’t know what the solution is to this problem,” said councilman Richard Ollis. “It’s a complex solution and I think it’s a systemic problem. But one thing for sure is we can’t do this at the expense of our neighborhoods and our business districts.”

“There is not a solution we’ve found yet,” echoed City Manager Jason Gage. “We were talking about other communities like Portland (Oregon) that’s lost its downtown at this point. We don’t intend to do that.”

“This has to stop,” said councilman Abe McGull. “It’s at a point of being a crisis to our neighborhoods.”

Councilwoman Hardinger agreed there was a problem but cautioned against overreaching.

“I do not condone criminalizing homelessness,” she said. “Incarceration cannot be our primary solution for solving this critical issue. People do deserve to exist and live with dignity. It’s just a matter of figuring out a solution that fits for our community.”

At a retreat days later the Community Partnership of the Ozarks, which operates 40 programs that advocate for child health, opioid prevention and homeless care, made a presentation about homelessness in the area including recommendations about how to best serve the 440 households and 750 individuals who are homeless.

Their recommendations include:

Increase Emergency Shelter - We don’t have enough emergency shelter to bring people into the system. We have shovel ready projects and partners willing to implement them but need the resources to make them happen.

Create a community-based case management or Critical Time Intervention program – This will help people navigate the system more effectively and efficiently.

Increase Safe, Decent, Affordable and Accessible Housing Units: We don’t have enough safe, decent, affordable housing units for people to exit to when they are ready. Invest in programs that work – The Springfield Community Land Trust and Eden Village are models that work and maintain affordability and can easily add units if the resources are allocated. The private sector can help by allocating rental units to be used by Ozarks Alliance to End Homelessness agencies that serve our homeless communities. If landlords, property management companies and realtors would set aside 5 units to be rented by these agencies, this could significantly impact our ability to house clients who are unsheltered.

Housing Study: We recommend a comprehensive housing study to identify vacant and dangerous properties. Some of these properties may be an option to add into our housing stock to increase units.

Homeless Court – We believe that the specialty court model is successful and re-establishing the Homeless Court in connection with Mental Health Court and Drug Treatment Court will bring services and rehabilitation to a high barrier population.

Purpose Driven Day Center – A Day Center for the homeless that provides direct access to mental health treatment and other vital services. This Day Center would provide access to a safe location for those seeking services to get them on the path to housing and self-sufficiency.

“At the end of the day, affordable housing is the real critical piece,” said Michelle Garand, the CPO Vice-President of Affordable Housing and Homeless Prevention.

Garand said that taking into account homeless and those who live under the poverty line, “we have a deficit of about 15,000 units to be able to house the number of people looking for homes in that income bracket.”

Garand also said having a homeless court will be a key part of addressing the problem.

“Things like the drug treatment court, mental health court, veterans’ treatment court and the homeless court are all specialty initiatives that look at trying to attack the underlying issues without sending someone to jail,” she explained. “So if a person’s been trespassing several times for instance we would set them up with a case manager to make a specialized plan to try and get them stabilized and connected. It just makes sense to connect someone with services that can help them instead of jail.”

Springfield has had a homeless court in the past but according to Garand the service came to an end when a judge was no longer available.

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